MARTHA SEZ: ‘Squanto’s story is not what you might think’
I have always been fascinated by Squanto, ever since kindergarten, when I first heard his name. I was cutting feathers out of colored construction paper with blunt-edged scissors and attaching the feathers to a highly authentic Indian headband, also cut out of construction paper, with that white school paste that smelled like wintergreen.
There was a little boy named Bobby in my class who used to put his desk top up so that he could hide behind it and shovel paste into his mouth with the little plastic flipper attached to the jar lid. Bobby has probably grown up to be a great shipping magnate or something.
Since, as I mentioned, I have always been fascinated by Squanto, imagine my delight upon learning that, although much of what we were taught in elementary school about the Pilgrims is American mythology, having little or no correlation with actual fact, there really was a Squanto.
The Pilgrims sometimes wore bright colors, for example, not limiting themselves to the drab gray, black and white apparel of modern day New York City residents.
We were led astray as children. We could have used the colored construction paper! While the Pilgrims usually wore russet brown and Lincoln green, typical of the English lower class from whence they came, they had nothing against donning their gay apparel now and again. Records show that ruling elder William Brewster boasted a red cap, a white cap, a quilted cap and a lace cap, as well as a violet coat and a pair of green drawers. They were not all uptight like the Puritans.
Truth, as we are often reminded, is stranger than fiction. Squanto was an English speaking Native American of the Patuxet tribe who emerged from the great primeval forest to teach the Pilgrims how to survive the harsh New England winters. They were so thankful for their first harvest that they celebrated with the Indians with a three-day feast. That feast became an annual New England tradition. It was President Abraham Lincoln who proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
Squanto’s story is not what you might think. He was no simple backwoods fellow, but a man of the world. In Squanto’s day, there was a lot of activity along the New England coast, with English explorers and merchants gathering lucrative cargoes, including saleable furs, timber, and human beings.
Yes, by the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Squanto had been around. He traveled willingly from what is now Massachusetts to England with the exploring party of Capt. George Weymouth in 1605, returning in 1614 with Capt. John Smith. Soon afterward, he and 26 other Patuxet and Wauset natives were kidnapped by Capt. Thomas Hunt and sold in the slave market at Malaga, a coastal city in southern Spain.
Eventually aided by kindly friars, Squanto was returned to Plymouth Harbor by the exploring party of the English sea captain Thomas Dermer, only to learn that the rest of the Patuxet had been wiped out by disease. He was the last of his tribe. When the Pilgrims showed up six months later, Squanto latched right onto them and never left them. He helped them to deal with local tribes, acting as translator and go-between, and yes, he really did teach them to plant corn, using fish for fertilizer, thus saving them from starvation.
Not all of the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower came to the New World in search of religious freedom. Many came to seek their fortunes. Think about that long, perilous voyage, and the hardships they endured. No matter how bad things were for them in England, it must have been a huge decision for them to board that ship and come to America, a wild and unknown land.
I wonder how my ancestor, John Howland, the only man, woman or child to fall off the Mayflower, determined to make the voyage.
Then again, probably John Howland didn’t have a choice, since he came aboard as an indentured servant, a man who could be bought and sold by his employer until he had served his term of indenture. I am thankful that the crew fished him out of the ocean, or I wouldn’t be here today.
We Americans, even Native Americans, are all immigrants and pioneers, or their descendents. I’ll bet that crossing the land bridge during the Ice Age, a step or two ahead of the glaciers, wasn’t always that much fun. But that’s pioneer spirit for you.
(Martha Allen lives in Keene Valley. She has been writing for the Lake Placid News for more than 20 years.)